It’s a blast from the past as a Doctor Who monster surfaces from the archives. How did the episode that features the “greatest hero and most fearsome warrior Mars has ever produced” fare?
Let’s bitch it out…
Sigh. I really want to love these new episodes of Doctor Who, I really really do. But I can’t say that ‘Cold War’ was enjoyable and I hate to admit it, but Doctor Who is starting to feel like a chore to watch. Sure, there always seems to be great things about each episode, but ultimately, these elements aren’t enough to get me excited about what happens next (a feeling I distinctly remember happening during S6 when the show topped my list of best shows in 2011).
This week we’re stuck on a Russian submarine trying to evade a pissed off Martian who’s been dormant in ice for over 5000 years. “Cold War’ is very disorienting from the get-go as we’re thrown a ton of information without much explanation for almost the entire first act. The Doctor (Matt Smith) and Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) show up while there’s an Ice Warrior wreaking havoc causing the submarine to sustain significant damage while barreling toward the ocean floor. Oh and we’re also right in the middle of the Cold War where the Russians are undergoing drill after drill to launch nuclear missiles. It doesn’t help matters when The Doctor is yelling at the ship’s Captain (Liam Cunningham) to simply trust him, noting there’s no time for the Doctor to sit down and explain what the heck is going on with the Ice Warrior in the first place. I understand that our Eleventh Doctor is a fast-talking, crazy kinda guy, but I’m starting to get slightly annoyed with the frenetic pace of everything if it consistently serves to frustrate and disorient the viewers. It just doesn’t make for pleasurable television.
But the more grievous is how the episode plays out every tired cliché of the alien horror genre (see all versions of The Thing, the Alien franchise, etc.) complete with the unseen monster hastily navigating through tight vents and grates throughout the ‘ship’, creepily terrorizing (and killing!) crew members with its bony alien claws. Throw in some over-the-top dramatic pauses and exaggerated zoom-ins before lines like ‘He’s got nothing left to lose!” or “There will be a second red planet – red with the blood of humanity!” and you’ve got yourself a winning episode. Personally, I don’t believe the episode did anything particularly original with these tropes, but if you want to hear a opposing opinion, head on over to AV TV Club to hear Alasdair Wilkins take.
After some trolling on the Interweebs, I now know that the Ice Warriors are monsters from classic Doctor Who, but as a viewer whose only familiar with the reboot, I failed to latch on to any nostalgic value or significant monster progression from the Ice Warrior of yesteryear. Viewing the episode as an amateur Whovian, the Ice Warriors failed to be compelling villain based on this standalone episode. Grand Marshal Skaldak (voiced brilliantly by Nicholas Briggs) is hell-bent on revenge after being attacked repeatedly by the sub’s crew and having abandonment issues believing his entire race to be extinct. I suppose there are some parallels to draw to the Doctor’s predicament, but Skaldak is so clearly sketched out as the vengeful baddie, any comparisons to the Doctor are too labour intensive to draw out. It just feels incredibly tedious as we see Skaldak go through the predictable plot points of vengeance to ultimate redemption and mercy with the help of The Doctor and Clara (of course).
And isn’t it convenient that the rest of the Ice Warriors show up just in the nick of time to stop Skaldak from wiping out the entire human race in a nuclear holocaust, just as the Doctor has finished his triumphant monologue about how he would sacrifice himself and everyone on the ship for the salvation of the innocent? I think Matt Smith is brilliant as the Doctor and his famous speeches in the third acts are almost universally exceptional – but if we get one every single episode, they invariably lose their effectiveness. Let’s only use the good silver for special occasions, no?
So what’s good about the episode? Hands down, guest star David Warner as Professor Grisenko. He adds a sweetness that isn’t new to the alien horror genre, but the effortlessness of his performance is just a breath of fresh air. The scenes he shares with Clara are a joy to watch even if they are quite predictable.
But the main failing with this episode is its inability to capture me, and that might have something to do with the series’ return to the standalone episode format. We got a bit of character development in Clara (as she wrestles with confronting danger even when that means encountering various dismembered submarine crewmen) but at the end of the day, this episode feels like filler. Filler to something bigger and better that is likely going to come around during season finale time, or in anticipation of the big 50th Anniversary special. I feel as though I need something to latch on to, to resonate, and I have yet to see anything like that from Doctor Who this season.
- This episode seems to be more cognizant of its production budget as we don’t see Skaldak in his original form until episode’s end. Even then, all we get is his head in all its CGI glory. That being said, I’ll admit his head looked quite good especially in comparison to the horrendous prosthetic claws we saw for most of the scenes prior.
- Even as I criticize Skaldak’s hands, they provide a nice nostalgic throwback to the cruder special FX of the earlier Who seasons (both classic and reboot).
- Lack of CGI effects aside, the atmosphere of the episode is spot on. The constant drips of water, gusts of random steam, mood lighting and Cyrillic script throughout the sub shows tactful attention to detail, adequately capturing the tension and authenticity of the environment.
What did you think viewers? Am I completely out to lunch and this episode was a clear winner? Did you love the Duran Duran and Ultravox references? What’s up with the Doctor and that Barbie doll? Sound off in the comments section below.
Doctor Who airs Saturday at 8pm EST on BBC America.